Modernity, Friendship, and the Purpose of Liberal Education

HomeArticlesModernity, Friendship, and the Purpose of Liberal Education

Thank-you Professor Cheng, the Lingnan University Office of Global Education, and the sponsors of this conference for inviting me to join you at this crucially important conference in this beautiful hotel. It is a great honour to come all the way from Canada to speak to you today.

The question of how the Western ideal of liberal education fits with Asian cultures is longstanding. The most common argument for their harmony is utilitarian and seems to be that liberal education provides critical thinking skills that foster political and economic development. By adopting liberal education, Asia, it is said, can “catch up” to the West. Conversely, the most common argument that liberal education is at odds with Asian cultures is that Western ideals of individualism conflict with Asian ideals of social harmony.[1]

This dichotomy is miscast. First, the “catch up” argument reduces liberal education to a mere instrument and illiberally reduces its aim to wealth. Second, the harmony argument forgets Confucius’ own view that harmony differs from agreement. Being surrounded by those too pusillanimous to oppose a ruler when he’s wrong, and to do so publicly, he asks, “does this not come close to being a single saying that can cause a state to perish?”[2] Third, the harmony argument also overlooks how liberal democracy presupposes harmony or political friendship. Moreover, focusing on the problems in the United States overlooks how much better parliamentary systems that derive from Westminster promote human flourishing and protect individual freedoms.[3]

In order to cut through this miscast dichotomy, I appeal to the original figure of Western liberal education, Socrates. Socrates indeed embodies the individual as it has been transmitted throughout the West, but he is not about individualism, which, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the nineteenth-century, is a phenomenon specific to liberal democracy.[4] For Socrates, political life is a form of friendship. However, Socrates also shows us how the critical thinking ideal of liberal education — or to use a better term, philosophizing — cannot be contained within the bounds of society nor in political friendship. Socrates shows us how liberal education is first and foremost care for the soul.

Socratic philosophizing cannot be easily assimilated with Asian analogies, including Confucianism. The Socratic philosopher differs from the Confucian gentleman (junzi).[5] The uncanny freedom of Socrates finds no counterpart in the Confucian courtier.[6] The Socratic philosopher is more like a “stray dog,” which indeed is how Professor Li Ling of Peking University described Confucius and produced considerable controversy.[7] But liberal education expressed as Socratic philosophizing poses a challenge not only for Asian cultures, but also for the Western ones in which it originated. As the exemplary free person, Socrates simultaneously belongs to no one and belongs to all. Let us also bear in mind that Socrates was tried and executed by the regime dedicated to freedom. The figure of Socrates teaches us important lessons for liberal education and for what we should expect liberal education to do for Asian cultures.

Socrates is the model teacher because dialectic or conversation among friends—question and answer with interlocutors — takes the form of a liberation, a releasing, of one’s soul from not only ignorance, but also of the passions and vices that reinforce our ignorance and our vicious presumption that our ignorance is a form of wisdom. Socratic philosophizing is a liberation from ignorance and a turn to the search of wisdom. It is more than a mere academic exercise because it aims at making us just. Like the gadfly to which Socrates compares himself, it stings us and thus works to release us from those passions and vices that prevent our wondering and questioning. It stings our pride, love of reputation and honor, fear, sexual immoderation, love of wealth, fear of disrupting social harmony, fear of suffering injustice, and our fear of violent and ignomious death. It strives to liberate us from the political, social, and individual forces that hinder our ceaseless desire for truth and justice.

Socrates fearlessly told Athenians that he alone, not Pericles or Themistocles, practiced the true art of politics because he alone was capable of morally improving the Athenians.[8] The so-called great statesmen of Athens were competent only at making Athenians “lazy, cowardly, [and] babbling money-lovers” because they pandered to bodily appetites.[9] No wonder the politicians supported the indictment against him. Recall too that the charge that Socrates invents new gods and corrupts the youth was meant to include that he undermined the family ties of the Athenian people.

Socrates was afraid of nothing except that in ignorance he might commit injustice. Many of his conversations were attempts by him to convince Athenians that committing injustice is the worst of all evils, even worse than suffering injustice. His relentless quest for truth that eventually led to his execution made him the freest man of all. Nothing, not love of wealth, not love of honour, not sexual appetite, not fear of shame, not fear of dishonor, not fear of ostracism, nor fear of being killed could stop him.

Like eros, Socrates is always on the move; he is homeless, a stray dog. In the Phaedo he refers to philosophizing as the practice of dying.[10] The freedom of Socrates is the ideal of freedom (liber) that is at the heart of liberal education. Liberal education is liberating and it seems to aspire to the dignity of the person in a way that transcends his or her place in society.  Liberal education recognizes as citizens we are a part of greater whole but fundamentally the person is greater than the whole.  This is why the ancient Greeks placed friendship above the political common good: our human good transcends the political good.

Liberal education then has its origin in the discovery by the ancient Greek philosophers and mystics that human beings discover their humanity in their loving questioning of themselves in community with one another of the truth of their existence. This discovery of our humanity as restless questioners originated in the earlier discovery in history of a unique realm of human interaction and friendship that enables human beings to mature and to actualize our humanity. This unique realm is called “politics.” The Greek discovery of politics is the discovery of a realm of being in which individuals freely come together in a common life, and exercise responsibility for their own actions before one another.[11] Aristotle captures this idea best when he defined citizenship in an unqualified sense as “taking part in judging and ruling” in a regime of political friendship where citizens take turns ruling and being ruled.[12]

Plato’s dialogues show Socrates not only discovering politics in a differentiated realm of being that is the place for our actualization of humanity, they also show him effecting that realm, of constituting politics. That is the deepest meaning of his startling claim that only he, not Pericles or Themistocles, is the genuine practitioner of the art of politics. His endeavors to convince fellow Athenians that justice is better than injustice, that committing injustice is the worst of all evils, and that suffering injustice is thereby a lesser evil, are his demiurgic attempt to wrest order out of chaos, to make justice at least in the soul a possibility.[13]

Socratic politics as liberal education consists of creating and sustaining a republic of learners, bound together in friendship, loving truth expressed as questioning, and being grateful toward others for correcting one and for being released from ignorance. Socratic learners are grateful, not resentful, when they are proven wrong because that is the means of obtaining wisdom. This attitude is also marked by freedom and friendship. Socrates remarks in the Republic and Plato says in his own name in his Seventh Letter that when the corruption of one’s society has rendered the authority of its rulers, its laws, and its customs illegitimate, then the only way that politics can be regenerated is by friends joining together in loving questioning and conversation concerning the good and the beautiful.[14]

It is for this reason that numerous dissidents of tyrannical regimes take up and read the writings of the great philosophers, including those of Plato: the corruption of their society compels them to rethink politics as the realm of our humanity from the ground up.[15] Indeed, Socratic philosophizing means we can never place our full faith in the laws and customs of our particular regimes. Each new generation must rethink their humanity from the ground up, quite often in the homes of friends as Socrates speaks with his friends at night in the home of Cephalus, and in the twentieth-century Jan Patočka who delivered his Plato and Europe lectures in the last years of his life under communism in Czechoslovkia, and Eric Voegelin who helped young Germans rebuild their post-war society.[16] Teachers of liberal education must necessarily be inventors of new gods and corruptors of the youth, and accept the risks that go along with that vocation.

So far I have been speaking about Socratic philosophizing in the general sense. Permit me to summarize and then to make a few comments on what this might mean for Asian cultures and political regimes. Note that I have dispensed with the trendy buzzwords of “critical thinking” popular in discussion of liberal education. I do so because they obscure what is essential to the paradoxical figure of Socrates, which shows our humanity is somehow rooted in a realm of being beyond any particular regime which means that the human person transcends the collective good of whatever regime in which he or she lives. As citizens we are parts of the greater whole of our political regime; as persons we are wholes greater than our regime. Politics as a differentiated realm whereby we actualize our humanity can only be constituted when our humanity is actualized by a transcendent source of being beyond politics.

This audience does not need me to remind them of the precarious state of freedom in many parts of East Asia. I am speaking more of the Socratic form of freedom than the liberal democratic form of freedom Westerners like me like to promote, though I like that kind of freedom too. The Periclean and Themistoclean focus, for instance, on “China’s rise” and on east Asian economic development, illiberally reduces liberal education to a servant of technology and instrumental reason, and reduces politics to a field of power relations with little concern for whether that field is conducive to human flourishing and political friendship. Politics thus reduced just feeds cynicism, opportunism, corruption, and xenophobic nationalism.

But those committed to liberal education must, like Socrates, be like a voice in the wilderness, or stray dog, who insists that living in truth means understanding that committing injustice is the worst of all evils, and liberating minds and hearts of the impediments of the opposite of that view, which is the view of tyrant. It entails viewing the art of politics as the art of caring for souls, instead of the art of pandering to bodily desires, including those associated with national chauvinism and crass opportunism. The liberty of liberal education is found in liberating one’s soul from those errors, in community and friendship with those struggling to be liberated. Liberal education aims at care of the soul who struggles with other souls to enact its humanity in freedom.

Liberal education has a cost. Socrates was executed. Jan Patočka, nicknamed the “Socrates of Prague,” was marginalized for twenty years while working as a clerk, and later died at the hands of communist authorities for his lead involvement with the Charter 77 group. God knows how many Socrateses have learned to die in prison camps and struggle sessions throughout the world.

Vowing to prevent future Socrateses from being executed, Plato wrote dialogues to promote the public value of philosophy and to establish an orthodoxy that committing injustice is the worst of all evils. He also claims he never wrote down his most serious thoughts. This is what Plato meant by irony, which is rooted in the philosopher’s awareness that non-philosophers are probably right to be wary of their uncanny skills at dialectic.[17] Philosophers are used to establishing “second societies,” which is a term used to describe underground societies in eastern Europe under communism, and in China during the Cultural Revolution.[18] Perhaps it is for reasons of irony that when Chinese students read Leo Strauss’s commentaries on Socrates, they find his discussion of the gentleman most relevant to their own experience.[19] Perhaps liberal education universities can educate a future ruling class whose love of truth and justice makes them resistant to the siren calls of political opportunism. Another example might be that of Wang Li, the former stray dog whose Early Rain church in Chengdu, by promoting freedom and responsibility in civil society on the wings of Christian faith, may be more effective at practicing Socratic politics than public intellectuals.[20] Finally, it is said that Socratic philosophizing is closer to comedy than to tragedy, which suggests that online egao as “politics by other means” might be yet another example, this time the ironic use of irony, of Socratic politics.[21]

Socratic irony then is the attempt by the Socratic philosopher to find a home for him and friends of truth in a world that is largely hostile to the quest for justice, and the care of souls. Schools dedicated to liberal education must find their own ways to negotiate a home for themselves with careful attention to the moral and spiritual possibilities their particular political regimes hold. They need to cultivate an intellectually honest and ethically grounded practical wisdom that enables them to make necessary trade-offs that enable them to stay the course of their mission and to avoid straying from it. However, staying on course is extremely difficult because their mission is to wonder and to wander; the course —the pathway out of the cave— is anything but straight. In the words of Laozi, “A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.”[22] Stray dogs are homeless and restless, living outside Hong Kong’s five-star hotels, much the way Socrates describes eros when he says: “he’s always poor and, far from being tender and beautiful, as the many suppose, is instead tough and dried out, shoeless and homeless, always stretched out on the ground and without blankets, lying down in doorways and on roads in the open air.”[23]



[1] Rui Yang writes: “[T]he role of the individual is crucially important in US liberal arts education. This is totally in conflict with the collectivist cultural value embedded throughout East Asia where every person is part of a family and a community, not the autonomous entity that is highly valued in Western tradition. Such an emphasis on the individual might well be the biggest challenge in translating the Western concept of liberal education to cultures beyond the Western tradition” (Rui Yang, “The East-West Axis? Liberal Arts Education in East Asian Universities,” in Liberal Arts Education and Colleges in East Asia: Possibilities and Challenges in the Global Age, edited by Insung Jung, Mikiko Nishimura, and Toshiaki Sasao, (Singapore: Springer, 2016), 33).

[2] Confucius, Analects, translated by Edward Slingerland, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 13.15. See 13.23 and 14.22 (“Zilu asked about serving one’s lord. The Master replied, ‘Do not deceive him. Oppose him openly’”).

[3] On the comparative advantage of parliamentary systems over presidential systems in securing freedoms, see F. L. Buckley, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, (New York: Encounter Books, 2014), chapters 6-9. On the necessity of liberal education for parliamentary democracy, see my “Liberal Education Embedded in Civic Education for Responsible Government:  The Case of John George Bourinot,” in Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges, edited By David Livingstone, (Montréal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015), 44-76.

[4] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 882.

[5] “[T]he Confucian educational ideal of ‘junzi’ shares much resemblance with the ‘gentlemen’ in the Western context” (Yang, “The East-West Axis?,” 30).

[6] Socrates talked about daimonia (Symposium, Apology) while Confucius disparaged serving “ghosts and spirits” (Confucius, Analects, 11.2). Even so, understanding “Heaven’s Mandate” is key to self-knowledge (see 2.4 and 14.35)

[7] Li Ling, Stray Dog: My Reading of “The Analects.” See Peter Moody, “How to Treat the Tradition From Confucius to Lu Xun,” May 23, 2008,

[8] Plato, Gorgias, 521d.

[9] Plato, Gorgias, 515e, 518a-b (Sachs translation).

[10] Plato, Phaedo, 67e.

[11] “The discovery of a realm of being that coincides with the realm of human interaction and culminates in a common or public dimension of activity was the historical event that exposes the very constituent of man’s humanity as it partakes of a more comprehensive structured reality. This event made paramount to men the differentiated realm of being and defined politics in terms of the structure of human existence newly perceived as the tension between order and disorder, fullness and want, mortality and immortality, and time and eternity…. This new experiential mode of the differentiated reality of God, nature, man, and society opened up to man’s activities a realm of being (i.e., politics), which enabled Western man to start the enterprise of modern civilization. Naturally, the realm of politics is neither purely secular nor purely sacred. It is the area of “in between” that comprises the two poles of existential experience, time and eternity” (Jürgen Gebhardt, “The Origins of Politics in Ancient Hellas: Old Interpretations and New Perspectives,” in Sophia and Praxis: The Boundaries of Politics, ed., J.M. Porter, (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., 1984), 2).

[12] Aristotle, Politics, translated by Joe Sachs, (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2012), 1275a24, III.4-5, VI.2.1317b3. Contrast Aristotle’s endeavour to distribute political wisdom among citizens with Confucius’ reasons for restricting it: “When the Way prevails in the world, commoners do not debate matters of government” (Analects, 16.1). Slingerland notes this saying is the traditional ideal of Chinese government that remains alive today: “political debate among common people is a sign of disorder, because in a properly run state, the people will be busy and content, and will have no cause to form or express opinions about how the state is being run” (Analects, p. 193). Conversely, for Aristotle, there is always something to debate because political time is always in motion; it is in the realm of in-between, of coming-into-being and degeneration. There is no utopian stoppage to political time, which might explain why his discussion of the best regime in Politics VII-VIII is incomplete.

[13] For details of this attempt to constitute the possibility of politics as political friendship, see my The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship, (Montréal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2016), chapters 5 to 7.

[14] “For I saw it was impossible to do anything without friends and loyal followers; and to find such men ready to hand would be a piece of sheer good luck, once our city was no longer guided by the customs and practices of our fathers, while to train up new ones was anything but easy” (Plato, “Epistle VII,” 325d, in Plato’s Epistles, trans., Glenn R. Morrow, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1962).

[15] Mark Lilla reflects on the intellectual focus of dissident writers: “My conversations in China reminded me of political discussions I used to have in Communist Poland in the mid- ’80s, after the coup and while Solidarity’s power was at its nadir. To my surprise, the people I met then—academics, journalists, artists, writers—were more anxious to talk about Plato and Hegel than about contemporary affairs, and not as a means of escape. For them, the classics were just what dark times demanded. I was particularly impressed with the publisher of a small samizdat magazine printed on terrible, waxy paper, who referred everything back to the Platonic dialogues. When post-Communist Poland failed to meet his high expectations, he became a minister in the right-wing Kaczyński government, somehow confusing Kraków with Athens, and Warsaw with Syracuse” (“Reading Strauss in Beijing: China’s Strange Taste in Western Philosophers,” New Republic, December 30, 2010, 15).

[16] Petr Lom, “Foreword,” in Jan Patočka, Plato and Europe, trans., Petr Lom, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), xiv; John von Heyking, “The Art of the Periagoge:  Eric Voegelin as Teacher,” in Teaching in an Age of Ideology, eds., Lee Trepanier and John von Heyking, (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2012), 87-113.

[17] Adeimantus complains to Socrates: “They believe that from inexperience in questioning and answering they’re led a little off course by the argument at each question, and when the little deflections have added up at the end of the discussion, a big blunder blazes up that’s opposite to the thigns they said in the first place, and like unskilled checker players who end up getting backed into a corner by people who are skilled at it” (Republic, translated by Joe Sachs, 487b)

[18] Frank Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), chapter 22.

[19] Lilla, “Reading Strauss in Beijing,” 16.

[20] Ian Johnson, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017), 62-67, 160-66, 199-201.

[21] Shih-Diing Liu, “The Cyberpolitics of the Governed,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 14(2) 2013: 252-71.

[22] Laozi, The Daodejing of Laozi, translated by Philip J. Ivanhoe, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003) 1.

[23] Plato, Symposium, translated by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 217), 203c-d.


Originally presented at “The Liberal Arts Education in an Asian Context: Achievements, Challenges, and Perspectives.” Launch Conference of the Alliance of Asian Liberal Arts Universities and Marking the 50th Anniversary of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, November 20-21, 2017. Remarks Presented to President’s Roundtable —Session IV (Transforming Liberal Arts Education for the Twenty-First Century).

John von Heyking

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John von Heyking is a Board Member and Book Review Editor of Voegelinview as well as a Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge in Canada. He is author and editor of several books, including The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (McGill-Queen's, 2016) and Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship (St. Augustine’s, 2018).